Hooray for Lorenzo Pugliese. Just months after graduating from the University of the Arts, he gives a spectacular, aerobic, full-throated, happy-making performance as SpongeBob SquarePants in the national tour of The SpongeBob Musical, playing through Dec. 15 at the Forrest Theatre.
Our scene is Bikini Bottom, home of SpongeBob and friends. Bad-guy Sheldon Plankton (played as slimy and vaguely perverted by Tristan McIntyre) plans to make Mount Humongous erupt, destroying Bikini Bottom. “The end is near!” the media cry. “Bikini Bottom is under attack!”
In a time of hysteria and division, SpongeBob and pals must rely on self and truth. There are also parables about government, capitalism (Zach Kononov is great as money-hungry Eugene Krabs: “Armageddon? Armageddon rich!”), cultism (Patrick attracts a loving cult of sardines), and friendship.
Like the TV show, it’s wacky, surreal, clever (very), and in the end, somehow worthwhile. Thanks to creative lighting design (Kevin Adams) and projection (Peter Negrini), and superlative set design and costumes (David Zinn), it creates a candy-colored, tiki-themed world.
Very small children (3 to 4, maybe even 5) might have a tough time with the show’s 2 hours and 20 minutes. But there were plenty of kids in the audience Wednesday night, and the parents were hooting and laughing even louder than the kids.
The three leads — Pugliese as SpongeBob; Beau Bradshaw as his best friend, Patrick; and the wonderful Daria Pilar Redus as Sandy Cheeks, the “land mammal” squirrel — are adult actors suggesting their characters but not in exact costume. Redus, for example, wears a non-squirrelly white jumpsuit, evoking innocence, science, racial difference, and the theme of xenophobia. (One fanatical mob sprints across stage shouting, “Blame the Squirrel!”)
The songs are by an all-star team of pop tunesmiths, including the late David Bowie with Brian Eno (“No Control”), Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith (“Bikini Bottom Boogie”), Lady Antebellum, and the great They Might Be Giants.
Philly energy abounds, with Penn grad John Legend (“(I Guess I) Miss You”) and erstwhile Philadelphian Cyndi Lauper with local legend Rob Hyman of the Hooters (“Hero Is My Middle Name,” a good one).
The dancing is wondrous. Just watching Pugliese will burn hundreds of calories — he’s a smiling dynamo.
Two highlights leap out. “Super Sea Star Savior,” by gospel goddess Yolanda Adams, is a rocking, churchy throw-down in which the sardines worship a confused Patrick.
And “I’m Not a Loser” is gut-busting. Squidward Q. Tentacles, the self-involved, clarinet-playing octopus, is played with brilliant, cranky flare by Cody Cooley.
A chorus of tap-dancing sea anemones (yes, that’s right) materializes as he sings, “I don’t stink/ I’m not a waste/ I’m not all alone in thinking/ That I am not all alone.” His octopus costume defies description and was a huge hit with the kids.
And what a roll the Kimmel Center Broadway series is on. At the Forrest, SpongeBob followed Hamilton. And at the Academy of Music, a sparkling Come From Away yielded to Tina Fey’s Mean Girls.
Note: Nickelodeon is showing The SpongeBob Musical: Live On Stage! at 7 p.m. Friday. See it, then come see this terrific, crazy show.
The SpongeBob Musical
Through Dec. 15 at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St.
Tickets: $39-$197; a lottery for $25 tickets is available the day of each performance.
Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.